CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Two-person PR team keeps Ben & Jerry's brand cool

Ben & Jerry's giant PR task is managed by a two-person team. But Anita Chabria finds that they keep the brand and its values interesting to the media and consumers by remembering not to take themselves too seriously.

Ben & Jerry's giant PR task is managed by a two-person team. But Anita Chabria finds that they keep the brand and its values interesting to the media and consumers by remembering not to take themselves too seriously.

Wavy Gravy. Cherry Garcia. Everything But The... Whatever your ice-cream tastes may be, they're almost certain to include one Ben & Jerry's flavor among the list of favorites. Since the brand's inception 26 years ago in a converted gas station in Vermont, the cleverly named pints have grown into the basis of an iconic company, known not only for its delicious desserts, but also for its strong commitment to corporate social responsibility. Along with taking a leadership position in the premium ice-cream market, Ben & Jerry's has also forged ahead of the pack in creating a company with a strong conscience. Telling all facets of that story, from the quirky to the meaningful, falls on the shoulders of its two-person communications team: Chrystie Heimert and Lee Holden. While officially they fill the roles of director of public relations and senior public relations coordinator, respectively, within the company, both are known by the titles of their own choosing: "director of public elations" for Heimert, and "senior public elations coordinator/multimediaolgoist" for Holden. And as for bosses, they report to "MOM," the "managers of the mission" that at another company might just be dubbed the management team. That lighthearted approach is characteristic of the way the duo does its work - getting the job done without losing the fun. "They don't take themselves too seriously," says Andy Serwer, an editor-at-large for Fortune magazine and CNN correspondent who covers the company. "A lot of people take themselves too seriously, but these folks don't, which is really refreshing." With that playful attitude and solid interest in its products, Ben & Jerry's has little trouble getting press, but Heimert says the challenge is keeping the angles fresh after a quarter-century of coverage. Part of their strategy is to let those within the company speak for themselves. From "flavor gurus" to the founders, Heimert and Holden like to have Ben & Jerry's staffers tell their own tales to the media. "We're kind of behind-the-scenes people," says Heimert. "We seldom have to speak in front of the camera." While it may seem daunting for only two people to manage communications for such a giant brand, Heimert says that using outside agencies lightens the load. The company recently signed M. Booth and Associates as its first-ever AOR, previously relying on various firms for project work. But M. Booth "got it," explains Heimert of the agency's handling of the brand. "Most people have a very hard time differentiating between cause-related and values-led," explains Holden, highlighting the fact that Ben & Jerry's is committed to allowing its mission statement to guide its business, rather than simply looking for social causes to tie in with. M. Booth, however, made the distinction. So far, M. Booth has aided with projects including Ben & Jerry's annual free cone day. Ben & Jerry's also has a new organic product line coming out in 2004, along with a line of novelty items such as ice-cream sandwiches (the new 'Wich, which was recently handed out in Salem, MA by, of course, a witch). All the new products will be supported by communications programs. Staying true to company values But some of the toughest communications work ties in with staying true to the corporation's ethical guidelines, which focus its future not only on economic growth, but also on finding socially positive ways to do business. From working with the Discovery Channel on a program that highlights research the company is involved with to create more environmentally friendly refrigeration methods to working with the Dave Matthews Band on global-warming issues in its "One Sweet Whirled" campaign, Ben & Jerry's walks the talk on CSR. But, says Fortune's Serwer, while "they do have a good social conscience and they are happy to talk about that, they don't foist it on you. I don't want someone preaching to me form a PR perspective, and they really don't." Preaching or not, sometimes taking such strong and politically sensitive positions can cause trouble despite the best intentions. Heimert gives an example of the company's switch to pint containers that are free of dioxin, a chemical used in the pulp-and-paper bleaching process that is harmful to the environment and hazardous to humans. "We got quite a few questions that arose from organizations that were involved in the chemical-making process who weren't too happy with our education component," recalls Heimert. Those companies tested Ben & Jerry's ice cream and found traces of dioxin in it. Despite the fact that trace amounts of the chemicals that are collectively labeled dioxin show up in many foods and other products, the coalition used that information to attack the ice-cream maker. But Heimert says Ben & Jerry's was ready with a response. "When you take a stance, you better be ready for the slings and arrows," says Heimert, who adds that the company was able to deflect a crisis situation because of its strong decision-making process, which allows the communications team to give solid reasons for every business decision. "It's not really crisis communications because the very fact that the company makes decisions based on a company mission doesn't leave any gray area. When you get attacked by another party, you go back to that mission statement. We've already gone through that process of asking ourselves, 'Is it true to our values?' It's real easy to go back to our mission and say, 'This is why we did that.'" Strong ties with parent Unilever A few years ago, Ben & Jerry's was purchased by Unilever, which now handles all IR functions. However, Heimert says that Ben & Jerry's continues to function as an "autonomous subsidiary," and communicates well with its parent company. "They are people too," she says of Unilever. "Early on, everybody viewed it as this huge monolithic force, but then we got to know some of the people. Essentially, they recognized that this brand and this business has been very successful. If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Internal communications is another area Holden and Heimert stay clear of, since employee communications is a function of HR at Ben & Jerry's. Product placement, however, is handled by Holden with the help of LA-based International Promotions. Holden, who began his career in film and television production, reviews scripts and helps scout for brand-appropriate opportunities. In the past few months, Ben & Jerry's products have appeared in films including Bruce Almighty, Matchstick Men, and Freaky Friday. Holden also serves as the company's official videographer. While the job comes with lots of perks - like three free pints a day, and a health-club membership to even it out - the real benefit is the quality of work that Ben & Jerry's does, says Holden. The best part is "just working with some of the most incredible people, some of the best people in the business." He gives the example of writing a press release with political cartoonist Gary Trudeau for the debut of Doonesbury Sorbet. Despite the perks, Holden admits the job can be demanding. "You don't get away from your desk very often," he says. And the coming year doesn't promise much free time. "We all know what happens in 2004," says Heimert, alluding to the Presidential elections and Ben & Jerry's ongoing work with voter registration. "Ben & Jerry's will be working with Rock the Vote. It will be quite a full year of events and activities." ----- Ben & Jerry's Director of public relations Chrystie Heimert Senior public relations coordinator Lee Holden Outside agencies M. Booth & Associates and International Promotions

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